The Perfect Enemy | How many died from COVID in Dallas jail? Sheriff’s Department won’t say, citing records law
December 6, 2022

How many died from COVID in Dallas jail? Sheriff’s Department won’t say, citing records law

How many died from COVID in Dallas jail? Sheriff’s Department won’t say, citing records law  Texas Standard

Read Time:2 Minute

Brown’s office has not provided data sought by Guadian and KERA in open records requests, arguing the information is related to a court case. The Texas’s public information law says there is an exception to releasing information if it’s “relating to litigation of a civil or criminal nature to which the state or a political subdivision is or may be a party.”

Until recently, there was a case pending against the sheriff related to COVID, Sanchez v. Dallas County. But that case was dismissed in September.

Here’s some background: in 2020, Oscar Sanchez and other inmates sued the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, which operates the jail. They said jail officials did not enact a social distancing policy or comply with most of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID guidelines for jails. The sheriff’s office disputed that accusation and said detention officers enforced social distancing and that inmates had plenty of soap and other supplies.

The case ground to a halt in mid-2021 when the original judge issued a stay. That stopped the release of data to the inmates and their attorneys. But by the summer of 2022, Sanchez and the other plaintiffs were no longer in jail custody. A new federal judge called the case “moot” and dismissed it with the agreement of all sides.

The dismissal would seem to trigger the release of the COVID data. A February letter from the Texas attorney general’s office stated that the exception “ends once the litigation has been concluded.”

But an attorney for the sheriff’s department, Elizabeth Lutton, continues to say the information can be withheld under the same exception because another lawsuit may be coming. And her argument could imply the scope of what’s shielded goes beyond COVID.

“The information requested clearly relates to any COVID-19 response or jail health related future litigation,” Lutton said in a recent letter requesting another ruling from the state AG.

The Texas Public Information Act says there is an exception to the release of information if a case is “reasonably anticipated.” As evidence of an anticipated lawsuit, Lutton points to statements from a lawyer on the Sanchez case in The Dallas Morning News soon after it was dismissed.

According to The News, the attorney indicated it was possible attorneys could bring a new lawsuit with other inmates currently in the jail. But the statements are far from definitive.

Savannah Kumar with the ACLU of Texas, which also represented the inmates in Sanchez, told KERA her organization has not said “anything concrete” about future litigation against the county jail.

“We know that jails are places where immense harm happens and that this harm might trigger, in any case, a lawsuit against a jail, generally speaking,” Kumar said. “But the fact that unconstitutional things might be happening in jails that might provoke or invite a lawsuit simply cannot be a reason to withhold important public information from the community.”